Don’t confuse online culture with digital culture, argues Terre Thaemlitz, whose latest project pushes the MP3 format to its absolute limits.
Where do I begin after James Kirby’s contribution to this column (The Wire 335) said so much of what I imagined discussing? In particular, the pressure to endlessly generate free online content and the mindless consumer practices arising from the ability to quickly amass vast collections of media detached from relevant contexts of production and reception. Indeed, today’s widely embraced model of the ‘internet as context’ is a sign of new heights of refinement in selling the Western humanist model of a ‘shared human experience’ to a diversely destitute world – albeit only at the expense of denying every material circumstance facilitating one’s entry into cyberspace, ranging from the realities of our crap little rooms in which we sit with our personal computers to the massive social and ecological destruction caused by server facilities and power plants cheaply built in underdeveloped countries by IT firms like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!.
Because online culture and digital culture are often considered to be one and the same, let me distinguish between the two. Even back when the internet was solely for government and educational use, I already considered myself a producer of digital media. I have always been completely reliant upon electronic equipment, both in the generation of sounds and in their recording. When manufacturing analogue formats like vinyl, even in the era before personal CD writers (let alone CD writers capable of writing audio discs with no gaps or silence between tracks) or Zip drives (the USB stick of the 1990s), the master recordings were always delivered in digital format on DAT tape, per those analogue factories’ own requirements. Going back even further, my record collection of youth was filled with vinyl records of digital music by groups like Devo, Telex, YMO, Krisma, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Jobs For America – perhaps all easily available in Europe, but quite difficult to track down in America’s rural Midwest. In this respect, I can say that the majority of my life’s experience with digital culture did not involve online culture. I realise that times change, and the world is now filling up with young adults who never went without the internet, but my point is that digital audio culture does not need the internet to exist. Certainly without the internet it would be something else today, but that is very different from saying it requires the internet.
So how did we come to feel the terms digital culture and online culture are interchangeable? If we momentarily put the corporate conspiracies aside, and simply look at electronic music’s historical connections to ostracised and fringe communities (from faggot nerds to ghetto B-boys to dorky girls), I can’t help but wonder how much of contemporary digital media’s ideological focus on ‘networking’ is an out-of-control extension of our own naive desires for an elusive sense of ‘community’ and belonging? After all, nerds were at ground zero when the internet came into being (Bill Gates’s refusal to get a normal haircut is a homage to this fact), and cultivated the online industries into what they are today. So isn’t it possible that one reason online culture is so fixated on issues of visibility and the potential for anyone to connect with everyone is because that has been the dark fantasy of so many technically savvy outsiders? With regard to non-pop oriented electronic audio producers, at what point and through what practices do we cease to remember that what we do is not about mass appeal, and in that sense may not be well served by mass systems of distribution? Isn’t it true that most of the inconsequential genres we move within emerged as reactions against mass appeal, and in that sense are knowingly inconsequential to mainstream consumers? The tangential electronic audio producer who forgets this is not unlike the bourgeois-seduced LGBT Pride Parader who fantasises about owning a house, getting married and having children (and indeed, many electronic audio producers are one and the same).
In recent years I have been focusing on ‘offline digital culture’, in resistance to online culture as a repackaging of the American Dream filtered through adolescent traumas, as well as a personal mistrust of online distributors emerging from years of unauthorised online sales of my albums by the giants of the industry – iTunes, Juno Download, eMusic, etc – which has left me unwilling to enter into business arrangements with those same companies (a whole other trauma).
For example, 2009’s Dead Stock Archive: Complete Collected Works was an 8GB MP3 collection only available on DVD-R. And my upcoming album Soulnessless contains a roughly 30 hour piano solo filling a single maximum length 320kB/s MP3 file of 4GB (per FAT32 file size restrictions). I think of Soulnessless as the world’s first full-length MP3 album, seeing as the concept of what constitutes an album has always been defined by the playback duration of an era’s dominant media format (vinyl = 18 minutes per side; CD = 74 minutes, then 81 minutes, etc). And because these days enough is never enough, that file is combined with additional hours of new audio, video and texts to fill a 16GB microSDHD card. The sheer bulk of these projects is what makes them both physically dependent upon digital media formats, and completely unacceptable for online distribution. I also just discovered I cannot register the composition’s publishing with BMI online because it exceeds their system’s 23 hour limitation on song duration.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should be making 30 hour albums. It is certainly an asinine response to an online audio industry that already demands so much free labour in the form of bonus materials and promotional mixes. But the idea of producing a thematically focused project on the scale of Soulnessless is simply one example of an attempt to critically engage with the demands of conventional ADHD-inspired distribution and listening practices. And in addition to distribution jamming, the never before imagined playback durations of today also open the door to new compositional strategies. For example, even with a 4GB file size limitation, a monophonic MP3 file with a low enough compression rate could theoretically last for thousands of hours.
Of course, we only uncover the real boundaries of a format through material experimentation. When I began Soulnessless in 2008 I mistakenly imagined an MP3’s size was only limited by disk space. I then found that even when keeping a file’s size under 4GB, it still causes unexpected playback problems – such as a file on an iPod playing fine from start to finish when connected to iTunes on a computer, but once the iPod is disconnected it will only play the file to two hours 40 minutes, then stop abruptly. And even now that some newer computers are no longer restricted by FAT32 requirements, anyone working with large files knows that many audio editing and playback applications still use an even lower 2GB file size limit.
With each limitation and failure of my 4GB MP3 file to play, I feel closer to understanding the boundaries of present day media, and how those boundaries condition our habits and patience as consumers. These playback restrictions also create a welcome ‘problem’ within the world of music distribution, in that the project is immediately not for everyone. Because it requires special listening procedures, it cannot function as an impulse buy item placed like a candy bar near the supermarket register. It begs a more specific audience willing to participate in a form of digital media consumption that differs from the online business models of late. It remains explicitly digital without romantically conflating ‘offline’ with ‘analogue’.
Terre Thaemlitz’s MP3 album Soulnessless will be released in May.